A kitchen is something that every home has in some form – be it a small nook covering the essentials, or a big open space encompassing a large area of the home. And yes there are many companies offering kitchen designs and installations, yet how many of those operate in a fashion that is ethically and environmentally sustainable? Sam Shaw of Sustainable Kitchens saw this need and decided to move his installations in this direction. We spoke to him to find out more. 

Tell us more about your business and what it offers?

Sustainable Kitchens is a one stop design, manufacture and installation service for private home owners who are looking for traditional kitchens made using ethical and sustainable methods and materials. We work with architects and builders to manage projects from the ground up as we find that having a project guided from the back end means that all the finishing details will always be right.

The core of sustainable kitchens though isn’t our service, but our product. We have a large modern workshop and we build utterly bespoke kitchens from scratch, which means no standardised sizes or styles. Our USP if you like is our sustainability, which we hold very dear. For our clients, this means sustainably sourced timber, paints and materials but we extend this much further – right down to the tea and coffee we provide, the cleaners that we use, the stringent recycling that we do and the charities that we support, to name but a few.  Our aim is to have a positive impact on our environment.

And being based in Bristol, I assume that the majority of your customers are within the Bristol/Gloustershire radius?

The majority of our work is within Bristol, Bath and the Cotswolds. I live in the Cotswolds myself so it makes sense to supply that region. We do work outside the region too, particularly London where we go fairly regularly these days. Our one stipulation when working outside the region is that we keep our visits down to just one initial site visit before the installation – this means conducting the whole design process remotely. The design process is a fairly involved, evolving process which does require a lot of communication but we find that by using email, Facetime and sharing platforms such as Pinterest, we can overcome these issues fairly easily.

And how long have you been running this business?

I started as a sole trader 10 years ago doing more general joinery work with just my van and a toolbox, but still trading under the original business name, ‘It Woodwork’. The business was really launched when we moved into our first workshop in 2008.

What makes you passionate about your business and where did the idea for building bespoke and sustainable kitchens originally come about?

My love for timber and joinery came much later than my love for trees. For as long as I can remember I have sought out forests, being lucky enough to have spent long periods of time travelling around the Amazon basin. My biggest passion now is simply setting off into the woods around the UK with my hammock for some walking and wild camping. After an environmental management degree I worked for a while with a joinery company and found a strong desire to work with timber. It was a logical step for me to merge my passion for woodwork with my strong feelings about sustainable forestry and Sustainable Kitchens was born.

And your background? How did you go from finishing university to running your own company?

I always knew that I wanted to work for myself, although I never saw myself as an entrepreneur. I always had a sense that life would be easier if I worked for myself. Well now I can tell you that I was very wrong about that! I must confess that I didn’t have a burning ambition to do anything in particular until I stumbled almost accidentally into joinery and then found that I was having ideas all the time and became addicted to work.

What about your childhood background? Where there any entrepreneurs in your family who influenced you?

My childhood was lovely. I was brought up on a farm in the Gloucestershire countryside and went to a good comprehensive school with a good bunch of friends who all strived to do well – much better than me in fact – at their studies. I think much of my motivation came from my time at school.  My schools friends, many of which have remained close friends today, were a very motivated and determined bunch with my two closest friends now running very successful businesses of their own. It was difficult not to be sucked along by that drive.

Do you have a business partner and if so how did the partnership come about? Any interesting stories here?

We formally started the business in 2008 as a partnership before we became a Limited Company and my then partner Charlie O’Beirne still runs the business with me today. Charlie and I knew each other for years as he was a good friend of my brothers who incidentally is also part of the team here. Coming more from a multi skilled installation and site work background, Charlie has been instrumental in driving the logistical front end of the business, keeping all the cogs well oiled.

What makes your business different to your competitors? What gives you the edge?

We have long focussed on the quality of our kitchens, forever taking the long route if it means improving the quality, however small or unseen. I know how other companies cut corners with materials to save a few pounds where you might not notice it but we have always believed that the tiniest of details make the biggest difference when it comes to quality. Tie this in with our core belief that we should not cause a dent in our ecosystem through our manufacturing techniques and I think we have something that is genuinely unique.

And at what scale have you grown into now? How many members do you have in the team now?

There are 11 of us at present and we will certainly be taking on another two or three over the course of this year. In terms of productivity – we built 20 kitchens last year and have scaled that up to one kitchen per week already this year.

Tell us about any challenges or difficulties that you have encountered in setting up and running your own business?

The challenges when you are building unique pieces of furniture are enormous as every new project is an untested experiment. As a general joinery business, as we used to be, the range of unusual projects is massive and this creates difficulties for our designers, makers and installers. We managed to iron out the problems when we specialised in kitchen design which allowed us to template our processes and manage our costs.

And your goal or vision for the next few years? Where do you hope to see your business going?

I think the future for Sustainable Kitchens is one of growth but exclusivity. We are founded on a family core with a very close and personal service that we won’t lose sight of. I would like to think that we can continue to encourage people to invest in kitchens designed to last for their lifetime and beyond, to be seen as something that you pass on from generation to generation rather than yet another throw away product.

Over the next 5 years I would like to move into a larger workshop/showroom space where our clients can visit and feel part of the process and see the workings of the whole building because for me the workshop is a far more interesting environment than the showroom, so combining the two makes sense.